Harvard Educational Review
  1. Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools

    Edited by Jacqueline Jordan Irvine and Michèle Foster

    New York: Teachers College Press, 1996. 208 pp. $39.00.

    U.S. public schools serve scores of African American students poorly. Rarely does a day pass without stories, anecdotes, or a new piece of research about the "hordes" of unsuccessful, poorly motivated, low-achieving African American students. Although the blame for their problems is frequently placed on the African American students and their parents, educators are beginning to point not to the victims, but to society and the public schools as the source of these students' failure. But who speaks for successful African American students? What qualities have helped African American students succeed? What kinds of schools and school environments serve African American children well?

    Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools, edited by Jacqueline Irvine and Michèle Foster, presents the views of prominent African American educators on African American students who are successful and who possess such qualities as resiliency, accommodation to the dominant culture without assimilation, and retention of their positive cultural identities (see pp. x–xi). The authors of each chapter in this edited volume make the compelling argument that these qualities can be found in African Americans who attended Catholic schools and later succeeded as scholars and educators.

    The chapters emphasize the common characteristics of the Catholic school environments that guide and empower African American students as they succeed in school and beyond. These characteristics include teachers' high expectations of students; the belief that all children will learn and that it is the teachers' responsibility to ensure that they do; a curriculum that is academic, complex, and rigorous; the schools' acknowledgment and support of the community's efforts to nurture a strong African American identity among the students; and attention to the spiritual development of African American students and their families. In her introduction, Foster explains the purpose of the book:

    The significance of this book is that it challenges dominant educational theory that African Americans, as involuntary minorities and in historical relationship to the dominant community, always respond in predictable ways to the perception of limited opportunities. In addition, it chalenges the dominant theory that portrays African Americans as helpless victims in a marginalized culture that exists in constant opposition to Eurocentric beliefs and practices. (p. 2)

    It is our hope that this volume will move the discussion beyond the current school failure of African Americans to more complex and particularistic insights into how African Americans respond and manipulate political, environmental, and economic situations in order to achieve an education. Finally, it is hoped that these insights will provide readers with new strategies related to how school failure might be reduced and how school success might be achieved for more African American students. (p. 7)

    Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools is divided into two parts. The chapters in Part One provide a historical and social context for many of the individual stories that follow in Part Two. I found this first section persuasive, and an interesting contrast to the folklore that abounds in the United States surrounding the education and schooling of African Americans. The authors know their subjects well, and they admirably detail African American academic success in Catholic schools.

    Part One, "Historical and Sociological Analysis of African American Catholic Education," begins with the chapter, "The Academic Achievement of African Americans in Catholic Schools: A Review of the Literature." Author Darlene Eleanor York's literature review examines the history and characteristics of Catholic education that influence the achievement of African American students in Catholic schools. She contends that the research supports the view of Catholic schools as "more effective for the education of African American students" (p. 21), and that "the deleterious affects of race, gender, and social class seem to be ameliorated, if not eradicated, in Catholic schools" (p. 39).

    Chapters two and three provide a historical look at Catholicism and the increase in the numbers of African American students educated in Catholic schools. V. P. Franklin, in "First Came School: Catholic Evangelization Among African Americans in the United States, 1827 to the Present," presents evidence that Catholic schools served to recruit converts to Catholicism among African Americans because of the social and academic place Catholic churches hold in the community. Because a major goal of the Catholic church was to convert new members, with more non-Catholics enrolled in the schools, opportunities for religious conversions increased. Thus Catholic schools that served African Americans provided an education for the children while converting the parents, in the hopes of swelling the numbers of African Americans who would require or desire a Catholic education. Franklin concludes that not only did Catholic schools evangelize African Americans, but also that "private Catholic schools appeared to be serving their minority clientele quite well" because of the high-quality education African American parents and students received in Catholic schools (p. 58).

    In "Making a Way Out of No Way: The Oblate Sisters of Providence and St. Francis Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, 1828 to the Present," Vernon C. Polite discusses the growth of an African American order of nuns whose main goal was first to educate African American girls and then both African American girls and boys. The St. Francis Academy is unique because of its commitment to the education of working-class and poor urban youth. Polite highlights the success of St. Francis: 95 percent of the school's graduates attended postsecondary schools and 80 percent of the students who attended college also graduated.

    The final chapter in Part One, "Holy Angels: Pocket of Excellence" by Portia H. Shields, explains how families, teachers, and students work together in a large city to replace despair with academic achievement: "By pairing energetic, committed, and involved educators with concerned and motivated parents, Holy Angels helps its students to achieve their maximum potential irrespective of their economic status or social standing" (p. 83). Shields challenges the traditional approaches that have failed to adequately serve the children in urban schools: As a result of Holy Angels' success, educators may be required to rethink their prescriptive methodologies for educating the children of the urban poor (p. 84).

    The chapters by Shields and William Tate from Part Two about the Holy Angels School in urban Chicago refute the notion that African American students who meet success in Catholic schools are middle-class African Americans who would do well in most U.S. schools. In fact, their evidence indicates that the students who are best served and make the greatest gains in Catholic schools are those who are worst served in the U.S. public schools. The authors also make clear that Catholic schools continue to educate a particular population well, even though they spend less per student and thus have fewer materials and resources. However, on standardized exams, these African American students still do not test as well as their White counterparts.

    Much of what is practiced in Catholic schools is what current school reform initiatives suggest as ways to improve success of all children, particularly urban youth. There are several "commands" that seem to support schools as they change and become more effective, such as strong home-school connections; teachers who expect, demand, and motivate their students to high levels of achievement; development of self-concepts and self-esteem among students; and a strong core curriculum. The stories in this book show that these were in place in Catholic schools long before public schools "discovered" them.

    Part Two, "Personal Memories and Reflections," consists of powerful stories from the authors' personal experiences in Catholic schools. All of these contributors — Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, Michèle Foster, Mary E. Dilworth, Lisa D. Delpit, Antoine M. Garibaldi, William Tate, and Kimberly C. Ellis — attended Catholic schools during the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

    These stories are significant because these schools varied in composition, and because the authors attribute part of their own success to the Catholic schools they attended. For example, some were segregated schools in the North and South; others were schools whose faculties were all White while the students were all African American; still others were schools in which the students and/or faculties were mixed in a variety of ways. Most of the authors' stories do not end with their graduation from high school, but continue through their personal and professional development.

    In her chapter "Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa: The French Catholic School Experience," Michèle Foster presents an argument critical of John Ogbu's view that African Americans as involuntary minorities tend not to do well in school. She explains that "environmental and situational influences interact in a way that can result in particular families adopting strategies that are believed to be more characteristic of those of other types of minority groups" (p. 96). Foster explains that African American students' school success is related to the expectations of their parents and of teachers who believe they are capable of learning: "These nuns espoused an ideology, a belief that all students could be successful academically, and master the curricular offerings [and] . . . a belief in the educability of students, confidence in their skills, and a commitment to educating all students" (pp. 104–105).

    In "Topsy Goes to Catholic School: Lessons in Academic Excellence, Refinement, and Religion," Kimberly C. Ellis relates her devastating experience in Pittsburgh Catholic schools, which she credits to "institutionalized racism/white supremacy" (p. 153). In spite of her ordeal, Ellis did succeed. She identifies a single teacher, strong family involvement, and a strong cultural link to the community as some of the factors that contributed to her success.

    In the final chapter, "Lessons Learned: Implications for the Education of African Americans in Public Schools," editor Jacqueline Jordan Irvine makes explicit the implications of Catholic school educational practice for the future education of the nation's African American students. She summarizes the themes of what contributes to success that occur and recur in this set of stories: "(1) curriculum and instruction, (2) common values and shared visions, and (3) race and racial identity" (p. 171).

    Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools adds to the achievement motivation literature while providing concrete strategies public schools can use to enhance African American students' success.

    N.A.M.
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    Book Notes

    Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools
    Edited by Jacqueline Jordan Irvine and Michèle Foster

    The Jobless Future
    By Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio

    Learning as a Way of Being
    By Peter B. Vaill

    The Other Angels
    By Patricia L. Walsh

    Reversing Underachievement Among Gifted Black Students
    By Donna Y. Ford

    The Timetables of Women's History
    By Karen Greenspan

    Migrancy, Culture, Identity
    By Iain Chambers

    Pushing Boundaries
    By Olga A. Vasquez, Lucinda Pease-Alvarez, and Sheila M. Shannon

    Focus Group Interviews in Education and Psychology
    By Sharon Vaughn, Jeanne Shay, and Jane Sinagub

    The New Second Generation
    Edited by Alejandro Portes